Baker Academic

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Christianity: outmoded and conceptually misleading.... but inevitable

This post relates to my latest book Near Christianity. Specifically, it ties to the interplay between the ideas of "belief and belonging." But I'll leave it to you to decide how it relates.

I was listening to an interview by Eugene Peterson tonight via the podcast, On Being. He's somebody who almost always sees the world differently than I do. He tends to zig wherever I'm accustomed to zagging. But I've always admired him. Even when I disagree with him, I do so hoping that he's right and I'm wrong. And I am usually challenged enough that I keep coming back for more. Also I love listening to octogenarians. All of the bullshit has been cast off and the remaining ideas remain because they are worth something. I've transcribed part of this interview because I want to use it in a class that I'm teaching (about the way ancient minds thought "religiously"). But I include it here for an altogether different reason.

[disclaimer: I've cleaned up a bit of the dialogue here. It is not word-for-word.]

Peterson: People ask “how do you mature a spiritual life” ….Eliminate the word “spiritual.” It’s your life you mature, not part of your life. 
Interviewer: The word “spiritual”—much more than when you first became a pastor—it’s everywhere now. I want to know how you hear that. What do you think about it? 
Peterson: Oh, I think it’s cheap. You’re taking a something and putting a name on it “spiritual,” which means it’s defined. The whole world is spiritual. And the word spirit is wind, its breath. Well, people are breathing all over the place; they’re all spiritual beings. But if you have a name for it, you can compartmentalize it. And that just wreaks havoc with the whole thing. And that’s why I don’t like the word. Because it’s too easy to say, “He’s such a spiritual person. She’s such a spiritual person.” Well, nonsense! You are too. If Church…if done well, there is no spirituality that you can define. 
Interviewer: Because it’s in everything you do? 
Peterson: That’s right. 
. . . .
Interviewer: You’re 83…. This last exchange just pointed out the complexity of dealing with words even though they are so precious. And I just wonder if other words—even the word “God” become too small after 83 pondering, after grappling with the immensity of who God might be.
Peterson: They do become too small.
Interviewer: Does the word “God” feel too small to you at this point?
Peterson: Yeah.
Interviewer: What do you do about that?
Peterson: I’m pretty much very circumspect about using it.
Interviewer: What about the word “Christianity”?
Peterson: Oh, that’s even worse. . . . the people who use the word “Christianity” mostly are thinking of an institution, uh, and that’s hard to get rid of. You know, most of us have negative experiences of the Church: certain churches, experiences we’ve had. So why don’t we just eliminate the word? Of course, that’s hard for me who is part of so-called Christianity.
Interviewer: exactly. I mean, you’re life and your writing is passionately interwoven with this—this enterprise, this aspiration of Church.

Peterson: That’s true.


Eugene Peterson, it seems, has gotten circumspect about godtalk. The words normally used for God conceal and mislead rather than reveal and convey. While I'm not nearly as cautious with my words as he (he's a poet after all), I think I know what he means. Perhaps the word "God" should always be footnoted with the old A.A. caveat: "....as we understood him." Or better: "God, as we understood it." Or as some of our Jewish friends render it, HaShem.

But what hit me hardest about this section was it's concluding resignation. Peterson suggests that the word "Christianity" is even worse. Too many negative associations with the institution. Too small a word for the life and lives it intends to label. "So why don't we just eliminate the word?" he asks. Well, it's not so easy. However outmoded, however conceptually misleading, "Christianity" is inevitable. It is inevitable because it is interwoven with too many of us. We know the word is fraught with problems. Maybe it's even a misnomer. But it is a misnomer built into us.

So part of the business of Christianity is the constant attempt to redefine ourselves and to communicate this redefinition to those who have misunderstood us. Because the words we've chosen were never adequate enough to reveal and convey. Inevitably, we will just keep failing. We're sort of stuck with the misnomer.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Historical Jesus is the Mediated Jesus

I am pleased to say that Dr. Crossley and I have successfully processed another issue of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus. Issue 14.3 should be out within the next few months. Here is an early look at my editorial foreword: 

Foreword: The Historical Jesus is the Mediated Jesus

The Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus has predictably changed in the past year reflecting both transitions of managing personnel and innovations within the field. Notably we have welcomed several new scholars to our editorial board and so too a new range of expertise. These include Helen Bond, Tom Holmén, Thomas Kazen, Chris Keith, Annette Merz, Halvor Moxnes, Jens Schröter, and Joan Taylor. This issue features an introductory essay by Tom Holmén and we welcome him to our board enthusiastically.

Another recent change is to our official subtitle. It formerly read Jesus in History, Culture, and Art. To better reflect the expertise of our board, we have changed this subtitle to Jesus in History, Culture, and Media. The addition of “media” to our stated interests invites potential authors to explore the reception of Jesus in both ancient and modern media. This includes historiographical concerns related to how Jesus was mediated in oral performance, textual artifacts, visual art, etc. It also includes the historiographical concerns related to how the historical Jesus is (re)constructed in modern contexts. Indeed, the “historical Jesus” if understood properly is a modern, historiographical construct that seeks to set the record straight concerning Jesus the man. (The discipline now recognizes pre-modern attempts to this as well.) As such, the historian interested in Jesus begins by finding something deficient or underdeveloped in previous attempts to mediate the Jesus of history. The fact that the historical Jesus is necessarily mediated, of course, is a key concern of hermeneutics (both ancient and modern). Research concerned with Jesus and media acknowledge that the means by which historical judgments are mediated impact how Jesus was/is received and accordingly reframed.

The present issue of JSHJ is illustrative of historiographical and hermeneutical media concerns in a number of ways. Tom Holmén revisits the social function of crucifixion in Jesus’ world and addresses the hermeneutical frameworks attested within the second-Temple period. Does Jewish interpretation of crucifixion suggest a way to mediate it in positive terms as we see in the case of Jesus? James McGrath offers a historiographical approach to Philippians 2:8’s possible allusion to Gethsemane. How should the historian treat a historical allusion mediated through an overtly Christological text? The article by Stanley Porter and Andrew Pitts continues this journal’s general interest in the philosophy of history and continues a specific debate with Jonathan Bernier concerning critical realism. Have historians of Jesus rightly understood Bernard Lonergan and applied his insights legitimately? My article in this issue is focused on a recent development in modern media. What impact will Trump-era “fake news” have on the relationship between Jesus historians and the general public’s reception of professional research? This issue also features several book reviews. Gratitude is due to JSHJ book review editor Michael Daise.

Another brief comment (in two parts) is warranted concerning the relationship to reception and social frameworks (i.e. mediation) and historiographical reconstructions of historical persons, ideologies, events, etc.

1. Historians interested in e.g. Jesus’ crucifixion must also be interested in the social frameworks that make sense of Roman execution practices. We must attempt to describe how the fact of Jesus’ crucifixion was received (i.e. mediated) by those impacted by Jesus’ death. Holmén’s essay, while not focused on Jesus’ execution primarily, contributes to our understanding of Jesus’ unique reception. In this case, the reception history of crucifixion is crucial to the historical fact of Jesus’ death. Something similar can be said of Paul’s reception of a historical memory as discussed by McGrath: the reception history is related in some way to the fact of Jesus’ death. These are examples of first-century realities being mediated—necessarily so—by interpretative frameworks. As such, understanding theorists such as (but not limited to) Bernard Lonergan ought to be primary to our historiographical interests. My hope is that this journal will continue to be a place for serious discussion on theoretical matters as well as the application of them.

2. Historians interested in Jesus must also be aware of their own social placement and indebtedness. No doubt e.g. the swell of anti-Semitism in modern Europe had some relationship to the proposal of an Aryan Jesus. Whether this mediation of the historical Jesus was self-aware or perpetrated unwittingly, the historian’s interpretive context matters just as much as the first-century interpretive context under observation. My article on fake news explores an emerging social framework that (I argue) warrants further consideration and invites self-reflection. My hope is that this journal will continue to be a place that welcomes metacritical analysis to explain how and why historical Jesus research has evolved and is evolving.

The articles in this issue represent various approaches to the “media” elements in historical Jesus research and illustrate the rationale for the change to this journal’s subtitle.


Anthony Le Donne

United Theological Seminary

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Goodacre and Still Named New Coeditors of NIGTC

Congrats to Mark Goodacre and Todd Still who have been named the new coeditors of New International Greek Testament Commentary Series.

Well deserved!

http://eerdword.com/2017/01/05/introducing-the-new-editors-of-the-nigtc/

-anthony


Monday, January 2, 2017

My 5 Favorite Documentaries this Year

The Jesus Blog normally does an end-of-year post or two. We sometimes choose a Jesus "Book of the Year" . . . . sometimes we pretend that we had a few "top posts" that are important enough to repost. But 2016 was Scheiße. So sorry if you (like me) wrote a book this year and we'd rather just forget it along with the rest of the events of 2016. Rather than focusing on what 2016 produced, I thought I'd mix it up. These five documentaries are only relative to 2016 because I happened to watch them in the last twelve months. I will rank them according to my experience of their intrinsic awesomeness from 5 to 1. So this is a Jesusesque "last shall be first" list.

5. One in a Billion. This is not your typical sports documentary. It doesn't retell the story of some famous game or personality. One in a Billion is a story about Satnam Singh. He is a 7-foot basketball player born in Punjab, India who is presently trying to make to the NBA. Chances are that he will never be a star and (even so) there are literally millions of people from his home country hoping that he will. I watched this with my 9-year-old son who had difficulty with the Punjabi accents at times. But we both developed a sense of empathy for Singh's struggle and gained a new appreciation for the sacrifice it takes to do something that nobody in a country of a billion people has ever done.

4. TIG. TIG follows comic Tig Notaro from her first attempts to break into stand-up comedy to her fight with cancer, finding love, and pursuit of motherhood. If you are a fan of comedy and/or humanity, Tig's story is fascinating and heartbreaking. My wife and I laughed hard several times too.

3. The Trials of Muhammad Ali. Like all Ali documentaries (I've seen them all) this film explores his career as a boxer. But this documentary puts a spotlight on Ali's political life relative to the Viet Nam war in a new way. In terms of quality of visual experience and story telling, this documentary is not as good as "When We Were Kings." But I felt that I got to see a different side of Ali's life with this one. For a few decades, Muhammad Ali was the most recognizable person on the planet. This documentary takes seriously the impact of his life outside of the ring.

2. 13th. This documentary tells the story of mass incarceration in America. It begins with the antebellum South and traces the relationship between blackness and prison through the Nixon years and into the present. This film creates a macrocosm for the topic in the way that "The Central Park Five" created a microcosm. I defy you to watch these two documentaries and not come away with a different view of jail time and the justice system in America.

1. Stories We Tell. Sarah Polley directs this documentary/biopic of her family. Without giving away too much of the plot, it is a reflection on a beloved mother who complicates the lives of everyone around her with a series of unexpected choices. I highly recommend avoiding reviews with spoilers. This film is well worth the experience without the taint of foreknowledge. I will say this: give it about 40 minutes before you give up on it. Beautiful, tragic, funny, and surprising.


Friday, December 30, 2016

Your New Year's Eve Party is Incomplete without a Free Book from Eerdmans!—Chris Keith

Want your New Year's Eve party to rock?  Of course you do.  So in addition to your tuxedo tshirt, cigars, party streamers, guacamole dip, and Pabst Blue Ribbon, how about a free book on the Gospel of John?!

Eerdmans is kicking off the New Year on the Jesus Blog with a giveaway of three (!) copies of the paperback edition of Character Studies in the Fourth Gospel.  This 724-page behemoth is the perfect party favor and conversation-starter between you and your friends and relatives, all of whom have absolutely no idea what you do in graduate school or as a scholar.  Not a student or scholar?  Then in addition to an increased likelihood of being in a profession with a bright outlook, your friends and family will be especially flummoxed by the fact that you spend your actual spare time accumulating this knowledge!  You'll be the Steve Holt of this party!  (Steve Holt!)

Edited by mixmaster Steve Hunt and the Rebellion (i.e., D. Francois Tolmie and Rubenn Zimmermann), this book has short(ish) chapters on every. single. character in the Gospel of John from a narrative-critical perspective.  This book is perfect for those drinking games where you need to explain the narrative role of "Malchus" the earless wonder (and, oh yeah, you know it--that chapter is written by Christopher Skinner . . . IT'S ON LIKE DONKEY KONG!) or "The Co-Crucified Men" (Chelsea N. Revell with mixmaster Hunt).  It's also perfect for when you're flying home after New Year's and get seated next to that annoying passenger on the plane who won't take the hint that you just really don't want to talk about your profession because, unlike his nephew in Topeka, you're not actually a priest.  If he won't relent, back up the Johannine characterization dump truck on him and unload some Gail O'Day ("Martha: Seeing the Glory of God"), Catrin Williams ("Judas [not Iscariot]"), William John Lyons ("Joseph of Arimathea") or, if you're particularly desperate, Chris Keith ("The Scribes and the Elders").

This book is also perfect for the course on the Gospel of John that I'll be teaching the first week of the New Year at Baylor University as part of St Mary's University's faculty exchange network.  It's "perfect" because it's "required."

So can you simply not stand the excitement anymore?  Just share this post on any form of social media and leave a comment here saying you did.  Or leave a comment telling us your favorite Chevy Chase movie and quote (any answer other than "Fletch" will count half, but the quotes can vary).  Or sign up to follow this blog and leave a comment saying you did.  Or do all three.  After a little bit, we will let the random number generator tell us three winners and post them. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Quarterly Quote of the Month about Jesus for this Week


The most significant thing in the whole document, when all is said and done, is that the Biblical Commission calmly and frankly admits that what is contained in the Gospels as we have them today is not the words and deeds of Jesus in the first stage of tradition, nor even the form in which they were preached in the second stage, but only in the form compiled and edited by the Evangelists.

                    ~Joseph A. Fitzmyer

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Christmastime vs. Xmas Entitlement

The following is an excerpt from my new book, Near Christianity. These paragraphs are taken from chapter 2: 

"On the Border of Always Winter and Always Christmas" 

In this chapter I quote C. S. Lewis's view on "Xmas." He writes, "Christmas cards in general and the whole vast commercial drive called “Xmas” are one of my pet abominations. . . . If it were my business to have a “view” on this, I should say that I much approve of merrymaking. But what I approve of much more is everybody minding his own business." In the following, I contextualize this idea by using a passage from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

.....

Unexpected Grace

Peter, Susan, and Lucy are on the run. Edmond has chased the White Witch in search of Turkish Delight and so he is not with the rest of the children. The reader will remember, however, Edmond’s peril and the sound of the Witch’s sleigh. She is the one who rides on a sledge drawn by two reindeer. The sound of jingling announces her arrival because her reindeer have harnesses of scarlet leather covered in bells. She has turned Mr. Tumnus to stone and she holds Narnia under a curse: always winter and never Christmas. It is then only natural for the young reader to feel Lucy’s fear at the sound of bells:
It seemed to Lucy only the next minute (though really it was hours and hours later) when she woke up feeling a little cold and dreadfully stiff and thinking how she would like a hot bath. Then she felt a set of long whiskers tickling her cheek and saw the cold daylight coming in through the mouth of the cave. But immediately after that she was very wide awake indeed, and so was everyone else. In fact they were all sitting up with their mouths and eyes wide open listening to a sound which was the very sound they’d all been thinking of (and sometimes imagining they heard) during their walk last night. It was a sound of jingling bells. 
Lucy—and the reader with her—expects the sound of bells to mean doom. Instead the children meet the person they least expect: Father Christmas. When my children were reading this book with me, I asked, “Do you know who Father Christmas is?” Even though we never called St. Nicholas by this name in our house they were both certain that it was Santa. True to form, Father Christmas brings gifts. Unexpectedly, and true only within The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Father Christmas signals an end to the Witch’s magic. Or (if you are like me and read this story for merging mythologies) Father Christmas anticipates the end of exile and oppression. “Locks and bolts make no difference to me,’ said Father Christmas.”[1] His arrival marks the liberation from Narnia’s long winter.

This story, like every good Christmas story, contains an unexpected gift. The children, of course, receive gifts. But the greater gift is a literary irony: when almost certain doom is anticipated by jingling bells, an equally grandiose but opposite character arrives. The reader is taken from dread to hope in the process.[2] This unexpected turn is the gift. Moreover, it is only a gift if it is unexpected.

Now I come to my point. The children in this story are not asking for presents. They have written no letters to Santa. They—along with the young reader—are entirely unaware that Father Christmas is even in this story. Lucy is a refugee hoping to escape and survive. She is stranger in a strange land and under no illusion of entitlement. The gift (charis means both gift and grace in Greek) is not an entitlement. Doesn’t this make the arrival of Christmas all the sweeter?

The trouble with what Lewis called “Xmas” is that too many of us feel entitled to it. And if we feel entitled to Christmas, don’t we rob it of its most gracious virtue? Isn’t a sense of entitlement fundamentally opposite to a sense of grace? I am of the opinion that the appreciation of grace requires the experience of an unexpected turn.

Of course, those who celebrate Advent (and I would recommend this over a “culture war”) can hardly meet Christmas unexpectedly. Advent is about remembering and anticipating, after all. We can, however, anticipate without a sense of entitlement. My guess is that this will make Christmas time more enjoyable for our neighbors and for us.



[1] C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (New York: HarperTrophy, 1978), 114-117.
[2] To play up further the contrast between Father Christmas and the Witch, consider this: the Witch offers a false gift, Turkish Delight. This is a “gift” that takes more from Edmond than it promises. On the other hand, the historical St. Nicholas (upon whom Father Christmas is based) was the Bishop of Myra, which is located in modern-day Turkey. So in contrast to the Witch who promises Turkish Delight, Father Christmas is himself from Turkey. Given the Turkish connection, it may also be relevant that Lewis names the White Witch “Jadis.” The word for “witch” in Turkish is cadı pronounced, jah-duh. “Aslan,” in Turkish, means lion. (My thanks to folklorist and friend, Nathan Young for his help.)

Friday, December 16, 2016

Christine Jacobi’s "Jesusüberlieferung bei Paulus?" reviewed in RBL—Chris Keith

Congratulations to Jesus Blogger Christine Jacobi on receiving an excellent review of her Jesusueberlieferung bei Paulus? in the Review of Biblical Literature! The reviewer is Kari Syreeni, who not only treats the details of the monograph but also the significance of Jacobi's study as an application of the so-called "memory approach" to Pauline studies.  (The Jesus Blog actually gets a mention toward the end!)

I include the closing of the review here.  I'll let Christine respond to the rest, but I appreciate Syreeni's closing interrogative, as I think he has perceptively noted what this methodological shift can entail.  He's actually entirely right that Jacobi's conclusions are open to different interpretations, because what one considers "maximalist" or "minimalist" is entirely based on what one is after in the first place.



"All in all, the book contains a series of meticulous analyses of Paul’s use, or nonuse, of
Jesus traditions. Both the merits and the problems of the book depend on its presentic,
contextual concept of memory. What we have here is nothing less than a new paradigm in
the study of Paul and Jesus traditions. This paradigm offers no easy routes from Jesus to
Paul. The proponents of a maximalist view may not find the new paradigm persuasive, yet they would do well to reconsider the concept of Jesus tradition. Not all early Christian
tradition is Jesus tradition, and not all use of traditional motifs and topoi is tantamount to
transmitting fixed traditions.

However, the new paradigm may not be quite so new after all. The reader may be left
wondering whether this is essentially much else than the Bultmannian line of reasoning.
At the same time, it seems that the paradigm is open to quite contrary hermeneutical
assessments. The back cover text articulates the minimalist conclusion straightforwardly:
“Im Licht des Christusgeschehens entwickeln Paulus und das frühe Christentum ethische
Überzeugungen, die später in den Evangelien als Worte Jesu weitergegeben werden.” By
contrast, the Jesus blog welcomes Jacobi as their new contributor by describing her book
as follows: “In this study, Jacobi argues that restricting consideration of Paul’s knowledge
of the Jesus tradition to mining his epistles for words and sayings of Jesus from the Synoptics is ill-conceived. One must, according to Jacobi, be more attuned to Paul’s own conceptualization of Jesus and the Jesus tradition. Focusing particularly on his usage of ‘in the Lord,’ she demonstrates that Paul ‘receives’ ‘Jesus’ as more of a hermeneutical sphere or orientation toward the past than anything else, and thus his reception of Jesus and Jesus tradition amounts to much more than simply repeating some words that Jesus may have said” (http://historicaljesusresearch.blogspot.com/2015/09/christine-jacobi-joins-jesus-blog.html). Perhaps, then, less is more?"

Congrats Christine!